The Scale of the Problem

18 May 2003

The Scale of the Problem

By Gwynne Dyer

There’s no point in writing about anything but ‘terrorism’ this week, even if there’s little useful to be said about the recent rash of attacks and alarms beyond the fact that it was hardly a surprise. After all, why would conquering Iraq do anything to diminish the terrorist threat? But there is something useful to be said about the scale of the problem.

In media terms, last week was a terrorist blitz: 59 people killed in Chechnya on Sunday the 10th, 34 dead in Saudi Arabia the following day, 16 more dead in Chechnya on Wednesday the 13th, a wave of terrorist bombings that failed to kill anybody in Pakistan on the 14th, at least 41 deaths from last Friday’s bomb attacks in Morocco, and three Israelis killed on Saturday. It sounds like a lot. It’s not.

Around a million human beings die each week on this planet, the vast majority of them from natural causes. Last week was the worst for terrorist attacks since 11 September, 2001, but only 153 people were killed. Last week, therefore, one in seven thousand of the deaths in the world was caused by terrorism. That is far higher than usual, so it made the headlines.

Yet there were no headlines last weekend saying ‘750 people dead of gunshot wounds in the US since Monday’ or ‘weekly traffic death toll in India tops 2,000’, and only a very small headline to announce that several thousand people had been massacred in the eastern Congolese town of Bunia. It’s terrorism that grabs the headlines, because it combines violence and surprise in a package designed to do precisely that. Since we’re going to have to live with it for a long time, we need to get both the numbers and the strategy into perspective.

Numbers first. Major conventional wars kill many thousands of people a day (and a nuclear war would kill many millions). Even in the context of ‘national liberation wars’, where subjugated people are fighting to drive out a foreign oppressor, the death toll from terrorism rarely exceeds dozens a day. When it comes to international terrorism (like all of last week’s cases except Chechnya and Israel), the average daily death toll worldwide is under ten. It cannot be said too often that terrorism is the weapon of the weak.

So how do terrorists imagine that they can ever succeed? Because they seek not a military but a political victory, and they know that the mass media of the target society will vastly exaggerate the scale and importance of what they do simply because it is dramatic and violent: ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’

Those trying to free a country from foreign occupation by terrorism have traditionally had a good chance of succeeding, because they only had to wear down the foreign occupier, not defeat him militarily. In the decolonisation struggles in Asia and Africa after the Second World War, the rebels could not strike at the imperial homelands and generally lost dozens of their own people for every foreign soldier they killed, but they usually won anyway once they had shown that they could go on bearing that toll indefinitely.

Among last week’s terrorists attacks, only those in Chechnya and in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories more or less fit into the category of ‘national liberation wars’, but they may not have the same outcome. The great difference is that the Chechens and Palestinians are physically next to the homeland of the people who rule over them. That means that they can and do carry out terrorist attacks in those homelands, but also that the likelihood of the foreign ruler just cutting his losses and going home is a great deal less.

Most of last week’s attacks could fairly be called ‘international terrorism’, since the targets and generally the attackers as well were multi-national in composition — but just what do they want to achieve with all this free publicity? Surely the Islamist terrorists who made these attacks cannot believe that they will make the West bow to their will?

Of course not. Their main goal is to overthrow the existing, mostly pro-Western governments of the Arab world and take their places, so their attacks are designed to drive Arab people into rising up against their governments. (Then they would create a united Arab-Islamic state, and ultimately a worldwide Islamic super-state that would take on and defeat the West, but that is a long way down Fantasy Road.)

Sometimes the terrorists are just trying to drive foreign visitors and foreign investment away and cause hardships that will turn Arab peoples against their rulers, as in the attacks in Morocco and Saudi Arabia last week. Sometimes, as in 9/11, they try to goad the United States into a massive, indiscriminate retaliation that would kill many innocent Arabs and fill the streets with anti-American revolts. In either case, they are only truly dangerous if they can get the target governments to over-react.

Arab governments, understanding this, mostly do not over-react. Neither did the United States in the first four months after 9/11, but that has changed dramatically since the ‘axis of evil’ speech in January 2002. There are several agendas running in the Bush administration, and the one on top at the moment is the hyper-ambitious Cheney-Rumsfeld project that uses the terrorist threat as a pretext for creating a global ‘pax americana’ based on the unilateral use of American military power. But the project of the Islamist terrorists is still running too, and this strategy is playing straight into their hands.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Those…less”)